The Ring o’ Fire is a 135 mile, 3 day ultramarathon. The route completes a circuit of the island of Anglesey off the north west tip of Wales, following the Coastal Path more or less all the way around. I know a couple of folks that attempted it last year and my interest was piqued. I convinced myself I could squeeze this one in before the Centurion Chiltern Wonderland 50, leaving a whole 13 days to recover. This was probably a bit silly.
I drove up the day before the start, collecting Helen in Warwick on the way. She was having a second crack at it after DNFing last year. It’s about 4.5 hours if the traffic is kind and it mostly was, we got to our respective B&Bs in Holyhead in time for dinner.
The first day starts 1pm sharp with registration opening at 10am. After the traditional poor night’s sleep pre-ultra, it felt like a lot of hanging around, I’d have preferred an early start. Still, off we went, bang on time, heading past the ferry port, clockwise round the coast path. After a couple of less than enjoyable ultras (NDW50 and LT100) I took the pressure off myself for this one, setting no time goals. In fact, I set a minimum time goal – no faster than 7 hrs for the 56km of Day 1. I wanted to leave something in my legs for Day 2 (105km) and Day 3 could take care of itself if I made it that far. On the other hand, you don’t want to go too slow, leaving little time for admin, eating, sleeping etc before the 6am starts on the subsequent days.
To keep my pace sensible, I’d decided to stick to a strict run:walk ratio of 7 minutes run, 3 minutes walk. I’d calculated this should allow roughly 7:30min km pace on average, bringing me in around 7 hrs. I was pretty good at following this plan until the course got hillier later in the day, when more walking breaks were forced on me anyway as I hiked up the hills. Things got slower as the day progressed.
The first 20k or so was pretty flat, I made pretty good time here, reaching CP1 (11.4km, 1h20, fruit brioche buns) in good order. I’d noticed in previous races that’s I’d developed a habit of being lazy about getting stuff out of my pack when I needed it, often causing unnecessary problems. I resolved to remove my race vest at every checkpoint to fill my 2L bladder, whether or not I thought it was necessary, retrieving whatever else I needed while I was at it. This didn’t cost me any time really, I had the vest off on the approach to the CP and filled the bladder in situ, grabbing whatever else I needed while I was at it. I was also more disciplined about nutrition, at least at first, eating something every half hour and topping up at the checkpoints. This did get more disorganised later in the day, something for me to focus on the next day.
On I plodded, actually grateful to get to the middle section which was very reminiscent of the South West Coast Path, parts of which I’d had the opportunity to run a few weeks before while glamping in North Devon. I really enjoyed this part of the race, the scenery was fantastic, and although there were ups and downs into coves, for the most part they weren’t severe and pretty runnable for the most part. There was the occasional beach to negotiate, some sandy, some pebbly. With my enormous size 14 clown feet I found I could run fairly well on the pebbles, skating across the top where others were struggling to walk. I picked up several places doing this.
At CP2 (29.2km, 3h22, malt loaf) I got my poles out, knowing that things got a bit steeper later on, and by this stage my legs could use the help. I was able to power-hike past a few folks on the ups. I played a little game with myself, targeting the next line of runners as they made their way to the next steepish hill. Humming “I’m going to get you little fishy” to myself I tried to overtake them before the top. Sometimes it was the next hill before I got them, sometimes they got away but it was fun to try.
I got to CP3 (40.5km, 5h14, sultanas) to find Rach off Twitter waiting for me with a nice cold Coke. She was running a 50 mile race in nearby Snowdonia the next day and had popped across the Strait to cheer us on. It was lovely to see a familiar face, and the Coke perked me up no end. I found the next section a bit more of a slog. It seemed to consist entirely of steep steps down into teeny coves and steep steps back up again. I’m sure there was some running involved along the tops, but I mainly remember the steps.
At some point in the final 15km I noticed some tightness and later pain in my left shin region. It didn’t seem to bother me that much, I carried on regardless. By the time I got to the finish (57km, 7h45), it was quite noticeable.. The first day ends at Amlwch leisure centre. Those continuing on to Day 2 can either kip down in the leisure centre or head to whatever accommodation they’d organised themselves. For the full race experience I’d opted to sleep in the hall. I had a shower, ate my re-hydrated spag bol and waited impatiently for a massage. All this time my leg was getting more sore and even a little swollen, not an encouraging sign. I hoped that a massage would loosen it up. At various points during the night I had cause to regret my choice of accommodation. Despite pretty effective ear plugs, the floor-shaking snoring of at least one other runner was a formidable barrier to sleep. I was pretty wired from the day’s running so I think I would have struggled to sleep anyway. Any remaining chance of slumber was reduced to zero by my expensive air mattress deflating, leaving me trying to sleep on a hard, cold floor. Not ideal preparation for the next day’s events, but I was in good company. Except for the snorer, he had a FANTASTIC night’s sleep.
Following a 4:30am alarm call, it was a rush to eat, sort kit, pack and generally sort my shit out for the 6am start. My leg was sore, but I told myself I could take it even easier than Day 1 and try not to aggravate it. I ran along with Helen and her roomie for the night for a bit, but I was finding it difficult to keep up with them despite finishing 45 minutes sooner the day before. I fell further and further behind, eventually realising I was the tail-ender. After perhaps 45 minutes I decided there was no way I was going to be able to do another 16 or 17 hours on a leg getting worse with each passing kilometre. I called the RD and dropped, hiking on slowly to CP1 (18.9km, 3h25, sausage rolls). I took so long to get there that I’d missed the cutoff by over 10 minutes, so I was out of the race even if I’d wanted to slog it out.
One of the volunteers was kind enough to take me back to my car at Holyhead. After a quick snooze, I drove to the half-way checkpoint at Beaumaris to collect my drop bag. I waited for Helen to get there, still looking strong, to cheer her on and also to break the news that I was heading home and wouldn’t be able to drop her back in Warwick as planned.
So that’s it, my Ring o’ Fire attempt cruelly ended by yet another tendon injury. This was my first DNF and won’t be my last. I don’t feel too bad about it, I nearly DNSd due to some foot issues in the lead-up to the event, and it was always a bonus extra race, slotted into the Centurion 50 Slam calendar.
I got home Saturday evening, pretty tired after no rest and a long journey. Despite this I was unable to go to sleep due to some extremely stressful dot-watching as Helen seemed to be sailing very close to the cutoffs. In the event she finished Day 2 with 15 minutes to spare, and Day 3 with a bit under 10 minutes left on the clock. It was fantastic to experience the rest of the race vicariously through her. Almost as good as running it myself.
It’s a tough race. The distance is a challenge, sure, but also the tiredness and fatigue that go with the format. Less than half the starters finish in a typical year, quite a high rate of attrition. Many, like Helen and me, don’t succeed in their first year but go back for more. Helen got her victory, her redemption, we’ll have to see when I can fit in my return visit. Maybe 2023?
I have a good rehab plan for the anterior tibialis tendonopathy but I think there’s only a small chance I’ll start CW50 on the 17th. Fingers crossed!